Steve Hallam spent a total of 27 years in Formula 1 – 10 years with Lotus and 17 with McLaren. He engineered Nigel Mansell, Ayrton Senna and Nelson Piquet at Lotus, and ran Gerhard Berger, Senna, Michael Andretti and Mika Häkkinen’s cars at McLaren before becoming director of race operations. But Hallam decided last year would be his final season with the team. He determined to take on an entirely new challenge and has moved to Charlotte, North Carolina to work as director of competition for Michael Waltrip’s three-car Toyota NASCAR team.
The catalyst in attracting Hallam to NASCAR was Scotsman Pete Spence, who is technical director of Toyota Racing Development (TRD) in California. Spence worked with Hallam back in ’93 when he was in charge of Cosworth’s F1 engine programme. He went on to oversee the company’s CART engine programme, then joined Toyota and is now TRD’s chief engine man on its NASCAR effort.
Through his connections with Spence and TRD, Hallam joined Waltrip’s team near the end of last year.
“I don’t profess to fully understand this style of racing yet, but I’ve often reflected since I’ve been here that if the F1 guys came and looked at what’s going on and appreciated the actual energy of the racing, they would enjoy it,” says Hallam. “But you need to do at least a couple of races to start to understand how and why it works. Just to take a single race snapshot is not enough because it is remarkably deep in its complexity.”
Hallam has quickly learned that every oval track is different. “People in Europe tend to say, ‘Oh, it’s oval racing. All they do is turn left.’ Well, they need to come and try it. It’s not that simple, I can tell you.”
The high-banked (36 degrees) half-mile Bristol oval in north-eastern Tennessee has seriously impressed Hallam. “Daytona and Las Vegas were quite impressive but the race that really caught my eye was Bristol,” he recounts. “It was unbelievable! People in Europe have no idea that there are tracks like Bristol which will seat 160,000 people in an arena in the Appalachian Mountains. The place was just heaving, it was absolutely remarkable. People in Europe have no idea how good it can be. It was really very special to go and race there.”
Bristol was followed by Martinsville, another half-mile oval but with only 12-degree banking. Hallam describes the track as being, “like two dragstrips connected by two hairpin bends”. Brake wear is a serious issue, requiring customised carbon front brake ducts. “Dealing with this track it really felt like you were going to Montréal or Monza,” adds Hallam.
Next came the high-banked 1.5-mile Texas superspeedway, “Which is shatteringly quick! These cars hit 210mph going into turn one at Texas and the load on the tyres is phenomenal. The drivers get out of their cars after qualifying and they’re shaking. They are truly brave men.”
Waltrip’s three Toyotas are driven by the boss himself, Aussie Marcos Ambrose, who’s in his first Cup season, and David Reutimann, the son of legendary east coast short track racer ‘Buzzie’ Reutimann. “David is very strong everywhere at the moment,” says Hallam. “He’s quite a shy and self-deprecating person, but he’s shown great fortitude and strength. Marcos has been a revelation this year. He has matured and is running very strongly in the races.”
Hallam has wilfully fostered a much closer working relationship between Waltrip’s drivers and crews. “We treat our three cars as one team and people here weren’t quite sure how it was going to work, but that really has matured over the first part of this year. The drivers talk together in our debriefs and the crew chiefs debate their set-ups together. If one car is struggling, everyone works to get all three cars to deliver. We haven’t yet done that. We can get two up there but we haven’t got all three up there yet.”
Top NASCAR drivers like Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson work with their crew chiefs to get their cars handling best for conditions at the end of the race when it counts. “The drivers who are thinking are aware of what’s happening and of where they need to be in the last phase of the race,” says Hallam. “Pacing yourself and planning for that final phase, knowing what to do and when the crew chief has to have the car ready for the driver to deliver, knowing the driver can do it if you’ve got him positioned right and the car is correct – it’s a fascinating part of this style of racing. There’s still a lot for me to understand about how the crew chiefs adjust the car relative to the changing track conditions during a race.”
Crashing cars on ovals is a fact of life. On big tracks or little tracks, you’re surrounded by walls with 42 other cars. It’s a very crowded environment and accidents are often multi-car wrecks. “I would love some of the very good mechanics I worked with in Formula 1 to see what the NASCAR mechanics do to these cars to keep them alive,” says Hallam. “What these boys do is phenomenal. It is a bit brutal and sometimes it’s a bit unsubtle. But it’s like warfare out there. It’s ‘needs must’ because points are awarded all the way down the field and you need to keep your car alive.
“It’s not like in F1 where if you drop out of the top eight you don’t score any points, or if you go a lap or two laps down you’re never going to score any points. In this series you get your car back out there. You repair it. If they have to, they’ll drag the car back into the garage and weld something up, cut some bits in and patch it in some way. They have to do it now and quickly, and you better stand back!”
Then there’s the logistics of running 36 races with a dozen or more cars for each driver. “In some instances the transporters are here [at the team’s base] for only a few hours between events while they unload the previous race’s equipment and reload with the next race’s equipment,” explains Hallam. “Sometimes they don’t come back and we send additional transporters out with cars. The California-Vegas exchange, for example: the trucks went from California to Vegas and other trucks supplied the race cars for Vegas directly.
“Most teams own several aircraft that they move everyone around in. The pitcrews are flown in and out for each race. Without that you would grind everybody into the ground. If the teams had to fly commercially it would take so much time out of the day just to get to the track.”
Hallam is a little frustrated with watching F1 from afar this year as McLaren struggles both technically and politically. He recounts a recent e-mail exchange with long-time McLaren colleague Tyler Alexander, another veteran who quit the team at the end of last season.
“I said to Tyler, ‘Do you think we could have done anything to help if we had been there this year?’ And he said, ‘No. There are larger forces at work there.’ An element of me wishes I was there to help but there’s a larger part that says, ‘My God! I’m better off here.’ I’m now only an F1 spectator. My life is part of this relentless schedule of NASCAR and I am thoroughly enjoying it.”